How to Sign Up For the New Health Insurance Plans for Pre-Existing Conditions

Just this week, I applied for health insurance that I may actually be able to get. After going without insurance since last year, and being rejected by all the private companies I could find to apply to, a very important part of healthcare reform has started – the ability for those of us with pre-existing conditions to get some form of health insurance. This part of the law created a new program to make health coverage available to you if you have been denied health insurance by private insurance companies because of a pre-existing condition. Hands up – that’s me! Administered either by individual states or with assistance from the Federal government, anyone with pre-existing health conditions who have been turned down for private insurance in the past 6 months and is a U.S. citizen is eligible to apply. And apply I did.

This new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) is different than the bigger reforms that are scheduled to begin in 2014, and is meant to carry you through until then when you (hopefully) will have access through a new marketplace called an Exchange. Seeing as how that’s four years from now, this new PCIP is incredibly important for those of us who cannot get private insurance. If I was employed by a company, I could get insurance through them – but I am not. I have been self-employed for 4 years and had cancer 2 years ago, and thus no insurance company wanted to touch me. Funny how they had no problem taking my premiums for the first 34 years of my life, when I was healthy. Strange how that works. But I digress…

In order to apply for this PCIP, you need to look up what your state offers on the website http://www.healthcare.gov, where you will see a map like this one:

After selecting your state, you can see if your plan will be administered by the state you live in or by the Feds. If through the Federal Government, you will be linked directly to an application page. If it’s through your state, a link will take you to information about how and where to apply in your state. My state, Colorado, administers it’s own plan, so when I clicked on it it brought me to information for who to contact/where to go to apply, and led me over to https://www.covercolorado.org.

After gathering up my completed application, rejection letters from other insurers, proof of residency, and bank information for automatic withdrawals, I dropped the entire packet in the mail – and now I wait for word on approval. I already know what my rate will be, and I expect to start having coverage in September. It sure will feel good to have insurance again! While I don’t (and haven’t) minded paying for the smaller things, checkups, and a few minor procedures out of my own pocket (see my post on using health clinics in pharmacies to save some money), the scariest thing about not having insurance is having something major happen; something that puts me in the hospital for a few weeks or some sort of terrible disease. Hopefully I can put that concern to rest starting next month.

If you have been denied private health insurance due to a pre-existing health condition, I highly recommend you check out this new plan and get yourself some insurance. It’s pretty easy to apply and rather affordable, in the grand scheme of things. Some important things to know about this, in case you were wondering:

  • It will cover a broad range of health benefits, including primary and specialty care, hospital care, and prescription drugs. All covered benefits are available to you, even to treat a pre-existing condition.
  • It won’t charge you a higher premium just because of your medical condition.
  • It doesn’t base eligibility on income.

So check out http://www.healthcare.gov, look up your home state, and see what kind of pre-existing insurance coverage you can get. Be sure to share your experiences in the comments on this page.


Cost of Bottled Water vs Tap Water – Stop Wasting Your Money!

Are you still buying (what amounts to) filtered tap water in plastic bottles? Well, it’s time to stop wasting all that money! Approximately 40% of all water in bottles sold in the U.S. is just filtered water straight from the tap, which is exactly the same thing you can do at home for only a fraction of the cost. Filtering your own drinking water at home costs a little more than $0.002 per gallon, compared to the $0.89 – $8.26 per gallon that you pay for the same filtered water in plastic bottles.

According to a Fast Company article, if the water we use at home cost even what the cheapest bottled stuff costs, our monthly water bill would be around $9,000. Yes, NINE THOUSAND dollars! Talk about getting ripped off! In addition, production of the plastic (PET or polyethylene) bottles just to meet our demand for it in this country takes the equivalent of about 17.6 million barrels of oil (not including transportation costs). So much money and oil is wasted by buying bottled filtered water instead of just filtering your own at home. There are much better ways to spend (or save) your money than on this type of product, so in order to help you cut that expense, let’s take a look at a few ways to rid yourself of the habit.

Whether you will be drinking the water at home or taking it with you, the first thing you need to do is to get some sort of filtration system for your home tap water. There are many different ways to do this, but the most common way involves a faucet-mounted filter from either Brita or PUR. I myself currently have a PUR filter mounted in my kitchen, but I will be switching to a Brita once I finish off all the filters I have in storage. (This is because Brita actually takes back their filters for recycling, while PUR does not) According to the PUR website, their filters remove 99% of lead and microbial cysts, chlorine and chlorination by-products, heavy metals, industrial pollutants, and 99% of pharmaceuticals. The water tastes fantastic, the filters last quite a long time, and I have immediate access to clean, filtered water for a fraction of the cost of the bottled stuff. I recommend, if you choose to filter your water this way, that you use 3-stage filters rather than the slightly less expensive 2-stage ones.

If you don’t want to go the faucet-mount route, you can always buy a pitcher that has a filter installed inside it. While these pitchers are not as effective as mounted filters, they still do a good job of filtering your tap water and removing most contaminants. Many different manufacturers make these kinds of filters, but you are better off sticking with a known brand because that way you can be sure that the plastic they are using is BPA-free.

There are also some refrigerator models that have water filters built right in to the front of them, making drinking filtered tap water incredibly easy. While generally more expensive than those fridges without such a feature, the next time it’s time to buy a new unit you may want to check these out. You just hook up the water line from your house to the back of the fridge, install the manufacturer’s filter, and voila – clean water available at the push of a button on right on the front. Wish my refrigerator had this!

Finally, you need something to take it with you if you aren’t using those little plastic bottles! Pick yourself up a reusable stainless steel or aluminum bottle from Klean Kanteen or Sigg so you can kick the habit for good. I have had mine for years and it’s still going strong. A small investment up front in a filter and a reusable bottle can save you a ton of dough in the long run… so stop wasting your money!


How to Save Money on Road Trips Using Inexpensive Hotels & Cheap Lodging

A couple of weeks ago I returned home from a 5,500 mile cross country road trip. Living in Colorado, with the rest of my family living in Massachusetts and Florida, it always takes a big trip in order to see everyone. And since I gave up flying 3 years ago, I now only travel by car or by train – and this summer’s trip was via my Mini Cooper. I drove from CO down to Florida via all back roads (no major highways) so I could see some great parts of the country rarely seen, then I drove up to Boston for a visit and to attend a wedding, and then I drove all the way back to Colorado. I was gone for just about a month, and I had a fantastic time both visiting people and just spending some of the summer on a road trip.

However, taking a long road trip like this can cost a pretty penny if you are not careful. Between the food, drinks, gasoline, tolls, and hotel stays, a trip can empty your wallet in no time flat. One of the biggest expenses I have found on these trips is the 6 some-odd hours I pay to sleep in a hotel… I drive really long days, pull into a hotel at night, and wake up early the next morning and get back on the road. “You want $109 for a 6-hour stay in your hotel?” Yikes! Well, after making these treks for a few years now, I have come up with a few ways to save on hotel stays while on the road, and figured that maybe some of you could benefit from them as well – so here we go!

Stay at hotels in the middle of nowhere. Rural hotels far away from city centers or big suburbs are cheaper than those approaching and/or leaving a major city. I usually wait at least an hour, if not longer, after leaving a city to find a place to sleep for the night. Unless you are planning on playing tourist the next morning, avoid renting a room near a city.

Using your smartphone (if you have one), look up the numbers and call all the hotels at an off-ramp. I do this all the time, in order to find the cheapest one. It saves me from having to go into each lobby and ask the clerks individually.

Pull in to the hotel late at night. The later you get there, the more apt the person behind the counter will be to give you a discount. If the hotel isn’t full yet, and it’s already 11pm, you can probably get a much better price than the rack rate. That being said…

Always ask for a discount. The clerk will ask if you have AAA card or something else like it in order to process a discount, but that doesn’t mean you need a card to get one – be nice and ask if there is anything they can do about the price. Some will, and some won’t, but it never hurts to ask.

Find hotels with free breakfasts and free wi-fi. Granted, the breakfast they give you may only be coffee and a donut, but that’s $10 less dollars you have to spend in the morning.

Sleep in your car. On my return trip to Colorado from Massachusetts, I slept in my car in a rest area in Missouri. I slept for almost 5 hours, got up, and got right back on the road. Was it the most comfortable place I have ever slept? Nope – but I have done it many times and am getting used to the idiosyncrasies of sleeping in one’s car. I find a safe, patrolled, rest area, full of other “sleepers” and trucks, vent the sunroof, lean the seat back, and voila – a free bed for the night. This is my new preferred sleeping method on long drives, as nothing beats not spending a dime on a hotel bed that you only need for a few hours.

Do you take long road trips? What tips would you offer up for saving money on hotels and/or traveling by car? I usually bring my own cooler full of drinks and snacks to save me even more money. What would you add to a list of money-saving road trip tips?

Photo by Bruce Berrien


Best US Cities and Places to Live in 2010

It’s that time again – time for Money Magazine’s 100 Best Places To Live In America. Every year I cover their findings, as I think it’s really interesting to read about where people are living “the good life” in this country. Their findings are based on data about job opportunities, education, crime rates, health care, extracurricular activities, and a bunch of other factors that can make or break a town’s livability. They start with towns and cities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000, then they exclude places where median income is more than 200% of the state median, then they screen out retirement communities, towns with high unemployment, etc., then they factor in additional data on the economy, followed by visits to the towns and interviews with local residents. It’s quite an exhaustive process!

I have traveled to almost every state in the country, and there are always plenty of places that I could see myself living, and discovering a few new ones in this annual list is quite interesting – it makes me want to take more road trips!

As I normally do, I will list the Top 10 places to live out of the Top 100 that they cover, and include a little info on each. Also, I live pretty close to Fort Collins, CO, and I have to tell you – it’s a very cool town, with clean air, nice people, and plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy year round. I highly recommend you check it out if you are ever in Colorado.

1. Eden Prairie, MN – 64,000 residents, $295,000 average home price, and average annual property taxes of $3,600
2. Columbia/Ellicott City, MD – 155,000 residents, $435,000 average home price, taxes of $6,500
3. Newton, MA – 82,000 residents, $575,000 average home price, and taxes of $5,500 (I love Newton, I grew up in that area. Fantastic city only a few miles from Boston)
4. Bellevue, WA – 124,000 residents, $542,000 average home price, and taxes of $3,700
5. McKinney, TX – 125,000 residents, $156,000 average home price, with taxes of $3,800 (What a great average home price)
6. Fort Collins, CO – 141,000 residents, $239,000 average home price, taxes of $1,400 (Incredibly low property taxes)
7. Overland Park, KS – 175,000 residents, $240,000 home price, and $2,900 in taxes
8. Fishers, IN – 69,000 residents, $140,000 average home price, and only $1,400 in property taxes
9. Ames, IA – 60,000 residents, $175,000 average home price, and taxes of $2,400
10. Rogers, AR – 57,000 residents, $171,000 average home price, and average annual property taxes of $1,800

I never would have guessed that a relatively small town in Minnesota would come out as the best place to live in America, but hey – that’s what these lists are for! I know my hometown in Massachusetts came in 16th place last year on the small town list, and I totally agreed with their finding. Is your city or town on this year’s Top 100 list? Should it be? Let us know where you live and why it should or shouldn’t be on the list!


How To Make Estimated Tax Payments – For the Self Employed

If you don’t have your taxes taken out of a paycheck, guess what – you have to pay estimated taxes to the IRS and your home state every quarter of the year. And even if you have taxes taken out of your paycheck, but you don’t have enough taken out to cover your paycheck or any extra income from self-employment work, interest, dividends, alimony, etc., well, you also need to pay estimated taxes. If you don’t make the quarterly estimated payments or pay enough taxes through regular withholdings, you also may be charged a monetary penalty – even if you don’t owe anything when you file your return for the year. Hooray for the tax code! I have been paying estimated taxes for the past 5 years, as I have been mostly self-employed, and it’s not as bad as it seems to be – you just have to make sure you set aside enough money to make those quarterly payments. That to me was the most difficult thing to get used to; it takes discipline to take out a percentage of each and every dollar that comes your way and sock it away for quarterly estimated payments. I set up a separate account inside my ING Direct account labeled “Taxes”, and it eventually became habit that I no longer really think of.

How Much In Estimated Taxes Should I Pay?

Don’t know how much in estimated taxes you are supposed to pay each year? The easiest way to make sure you are on the side of the law is to pay at least 90% of what you owe for the current year or to pay 100% of what you owed for last year. Sounds confusing, I know. In reality, though, you just need to make sure you cover 90% of what you may owe this year, spread out over 4 quarters. I add up each three months of whatever I made and multiply it by my tax rate from last year, and voila – how much I owe for that quarter. Pretty simple, yes?

Do I Ever Not Have To Pay Estimated Taxes?

Sure – if you have enough taken out of your paycheck and/or you meet all three of the following conditions as laid out by the IRS:

– You have no tax liability for the previous year


– You were a US citizen or resident for the whole year


– Your previous tax year covered a 12 month period

Remember, you must meet all three of those items on the list in order to not have to pay estimated taxes. There are a few ways you can pay your estimated taxes, either by mail or over the internet.

Pay By Mail

You would need to use form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals (PDF Downloads), to figure out and pay your Federal taxes. For your home state, you would need to visit the Department of Taxation website for the correct forms and mailing addresses.

Pay Over The Internet

To pay Federal taxes online, visit EFTPS, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. Using your social security number and a credit card, you can use EFTPS to make all your federal tax payments, including income, employment, estimated and excise taxes. Some states also offer online payments, so be sure to check the taxation website of your home state if you want to pay online.

The due dates for estimated payments are as follows:

January 15 – Fourth quarter previous year estimated tax payment due
April 15 – First quarter estimated tax payment due
June 15 – Second quarter estimated tax payment due
September 15 – Third quarter estimated tax payment due

If you still need a little more information, you can head over to the IRS website and check out Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax. Good luck, and don’t forget to pay on time!

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